Corn Stock production anchored by strong ensemble

Sep 30, 2014

Credit Corn Stock Theatre

The Corn Stock Winter Playhouse opens its new season with a production of “Bare: The musical.” Douglas Okey [OAK-ee] has this review, for Peoria Public Radio and the Live Theatre League. Opinions expressed are those of the reviewer, not those of Peoria Public Radio or the Live Theatre League.

There’s something oddly refreshing about “bare: the musical.”  To be sure, the show does not explore new themes.  It blazes no unexplored trails, musically speaking.  And yet watching the show Friday evening felt  new and fresh.  Perhaps the credit goes to the outstanding cast of young performers. 

Also known as a “pop opera,” “bare” employs the sing-every-line device used by many recent musical playwrights, including Andrew Lloyd Webber.  While the show has brief moments of spoken dialogue, the songs by Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo carry the bulk of the narrative. In the wrong hands, a rock or pop opera can be difficult to follow.  In the event, there were no worries.

“bare” follows the teen tribulations of a group of seniors at a Catholic boarding school in the (more or less) present day.  Their various stories orbit around two young gay men, Peter and Jason, a would-be couple if not for the obvious challenges of their environment.  Their story roughly parallels a school production of Romeo and Juliet that all the principal characters are involved in and that will, ultimately, be the setting for the story’s stunning yet inevitable climax. 

In all the ways that the production needs to succeed, it does.  Director Deric Kimler corrals the potentially unwieldy ensemble of rambunctious youths and, with the able assistance of cast member and choreographer Nyk Sutter, turns the small playing space of the theatre into a radiant canvas for all of the story’s colors.  And with the performers all miked, there is no trouble following the storyline.  The songs, under the musical direction of Holly Haines, ranging from rap to gospel, are not especially memorable, but they are performed with great competence and even flair by the cast.  The ensemble numbers in particular impress with their power and competent musicality. 

Austin Gruber and Jeremy Kelly as Jason and Peter are sweet and affecting as the central couple, and equally confounding as the circumstances require.  Kelly provides Peter’s point of view and shoulders much of the narrative burden of the story.  Bree Carroll as Ivy, Jason’s “cover” girlfriend, has the unenviable job of playing the promiscuous girl who stands in the way of true love between the young men.  She really comes to life as the story takes a sobering turn in the second act.  She puts a surprisingly powerful voice on display for one so diminutive physically.

Completing the romantic triangle (quadrilateral?) is Farris Abou-Hanna as Matt, pining fruitlessly for Ivy.  His haunted looks and lovely voice are just right for the part.  Jasmyne Providence as school music director Sister Chantelle is dead-on funny, and also empathetic when the moment comes. 

But special mention must go to Beth Ann Evers as Nadia, Jason’s sister and token big girl.  But that’s unfair to the playwrights. Nadia is anything but token.  She is possibly the most fully developed and realized of the principal characters.  Evers makes the most of the character, using her very expressive face to convey much of Nadia’s snark while hinting at the pain that it covers.  She makes “Plain Jane Fat Ass” one of the musical highlights of the evening.  If space permitted, it would be nice to mention all of the performers.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen a group so fully committed to the task of having a good time on stage while always remaining firmly in the narrative moment.

That story eventually takes a turn that flirts with the maudlin.  But that is no fault of the Corn Stock company, and in any case it feels somehow right for the Romeo and Juliet parallel story.  And it never sacrifices the show’s overall refreshing newness.  

“bare: the musical” continues Thursday through Sunday at the Corn Stock Winter Playhouse. Tickets, and more information, are available at cornstocktheatre.com.